Confidential's ale maven Neil Sowerby with the latest from Manchester's bubbling beer scene

Marble, 20 years on, the karaoke bar that might have been

Happy 20th birthday to Marble Brewery, which will be celebrating the landmark with a weekend (Dec 1-3) packed full of music, food, special events and the ales that have made it famous. 

It’s the Grandaddy, the Godfather of the city’s thriving craft brewing scene, yet sticking to its guns about keeping cask ale (60 per cent of its production) and owner Jan Rogers is adamant: “We don’t make cask, we don’t make craft, we just make great beer. British beer, not promoting USA styles. We did it for the fun of it, but it has lasted.” 

Yet it almost didn’t happen, admits Jan. “In the Nineties we were struggling to help the Marble Arch pub beat the recession. To heighten our profile one of the suggestions from my colleagues Mark Dade and Vance Debechvel was to turn us into a karaoke bar, which made me panic and push for the other option of opening a brewery in the pub. We’ve never looked back.”

Nowadays the brewing operation is down the road from the Marble Arch, which has two sibling bars, 57 Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter and the Marble Beer House in Chorlton. The cask production is profitable because the brewery keeps tight control over the expensive cask collection it owns and over quality control at free trade outlets. The beers remain organic and vegan. 

“You can’t sit still in a scene where other breweries give us a run for our money and beer retail is so sophisticated with bars like Beermoth and The Brink,” says Jan. “There are beers of the superb quality of Track Sonoma out there (she is less complimentary about a few other outfits).

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Marble Arch Pub
The Marble Arch

It was oh so less crowded back in 1997. Marble’s kit, in the pub cellar, was installed by the legendary Brendan Dobbin, one of the first brewers to use American and New Zealand hops in the UK at his West Coast Brewery in a less than gentrified Moss Side, and friendly rivals such as Rochdale’s Pictish and Phoenix of Heywood were following a similar path.

Original head brewer Dade left to set up Boggart Hole Clough Brewery in 2000 and was replaced by James Campbell. From then until he left in 2013 he created a famous roster of Marble ales – Manchester Bitter, Lagonda, Dobber, Pint, Ginger, Earl Grey IPA and more. All organic and vegan still.

His own favourite? “I loved them all,” recalls James, now head brewer at Cloudwater. “My personal pick, if you push me, was a Tawny No.3 we did (in 2010) – a wonderful beer.”

Like James, the brewing team back in those days have moved on. There’s a Marble dynasty in the brewing world – Colin Stronge at Northern Monk, Dominic Driscoll at Thornbridge, Rob Hamilton at Blackjack, to name three.

And current Marble incumbent James Kemp gets the Campbell seal of approval: “JK is a great brewer, particularly with saison styles, and Marble are still up their with the best.” 

As for Marble, where next? Kemp is researching vanished British ale styles, collaborating with other like-minded breweries to revive them (there's a collar event with Fuller's of London at the Marble Arch on Tuesday, November 14). 

And the current craft brewery fascination with using Brettanomyces wild yeasts? “No problem there – Brett is British (it means British fungus),” says Jan, whose son follows the family tradition at Dan’s Brewery along the Piccadilly Beer Mile. That ‘no karaoke’ decision sure paid off.

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Marb
Marble brews

Female brewers showcase at the Crown and Kettle 

Brewsters are women brewers. There are more about than you think, often the only ones around the wort kettle not burdened with a mass of facial hair. Off the top of my head, brewing is in female hands at Mallinsons in Huddersfield, Offbeat in Crewe, Prospect in Wigan (the great Patsy Slevin) and London’s Fullers and Beavertown – and that’s just the tip of the hopberg. Celebrating this ongoing revolution, crushing sexual stereotypes is the upcoming Beardless Beer Week (November 24-30) at the Northern Quarter’s Crown and Kettle boozer.

With support from Harrogate-based women and beer group, Women on TapC&K general manager Nicky Kong has set up this weeklong event celebrating the (not inconsiderable) impact of women in today’s brewing industry.

Star guest, on Saturday, November 25, is beer writer and sommelier Melissa Cole, who came up to Manchester Beer Week in June to host a debate on sexism in the industry – and to promote Prime Time, her koslch-style beer collaboration with Marble Brewery. This time her collaboration with Neptune and Beer Nouveau will be on tap.

Alongside the taps will feature an array of cask and keg beers (and some bottles and cans) made by the growing band of brewsters. Rachel Auty, organiser of the WOTfest in Harrogate, will be hosting a discussion panel on 'Women and Beer' on Monday November 27 at 7pm.

To find out more, visit the Beardless Beer Week Facebook page. And guys, don’t worry, bearded guests are more than welcome.

Crown and Kettle, 2 Oldham Rd, Manchester M4 5FE. 0161 235 0978. 

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Melissa Cole
Beer writer and sommelier Melissa Cole will be at the Crown & Kettle on Saturday 25 November

Carving out a new Stonemasons

Pilling and Pride sounds like a long-established, fusty firm of solicitors. Instead they are a dynamic new force on the food and drink scene. Steve Pilling (ex-Damson, the Chop Houses, Dockyard) and Angus Cameron Pride, once of Living Ventures and Gaucho, are relaunching the Stonemasons Arms in Timperley village as a ‘destination premium casual dining and drinking venue’ from December 2.

This latest move comes while the Farrow and Ball is still drying on Didsbury’s Dog and Partridge, first of their mooted Terroir Pubs brand (yes, we also misread it as a place to bring small dogs). With a minuscule kitchen the food offering at the rather handsome D&P – shame about the telly sport screens – is limited, but the revamped Stonemasons is a different beast.

Exec chef Patrick Moyo, formerly of Gaucho Manchester, has created an all-day menu featuring brunch dishes, wood-fired pizzas, steaks, home comforts and Sunday lunch.

Sad to report the core Greene King beer offer remains, supplemented by craft beers from Pilling’s own brewery, The Gasworks. Guest ales from Wild Beer, Brightside and Alphabet will also feature. 

Stonemasons Arms, 365 Stockport Rd, Timperley, Altrincham WA15 7UR. 0161 903 1740.

Stonemasons Timperley Google
Pilling & Pride are launching the Stonemasons Arms in Timperley

Runaway’s super suppers 

Beer and food matching in the UK lags behind the States, so it was good to see the other week Manchester Art Gallery Cafe head chef Mary-Ellen McTague creating dishes to go with the innovative Wild Beer Brewery range in a special dinner. Let’s hope for more of the same. Meanwhile, check out the Runaway Brewery’s monthly ‘Runaway for Supper’ clubs in their cosy Tap Room off Dantzic Street in the Green Quarter. The next collaborations are with two of Manchester’s finest street food traders – Holy Crab (£35 a head) on Thursday, November 16, and Yakumama (£40) on Thursday, December 14. Each course is paired with an appropriate beer. Book through Eventbrite.

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Holy Crab
Runaway and Holy Crab will collaborate for a supper club this month

Ghosts in the Barrel Tap

Coincidentally, Garret Oliver, world famous expert in matching beer with food, is in Manchester on Thursday, November 16 – hosting one of his Ghost Bottle Tastings at the Cloudwater Barrel Tap in Sheffield Street. He’ll be promoting beers from Brooklyn Brewery, where he is brewmaster and a few of his ‘secret experiments’ he carries with him on his travels.

This free event is sold out, but you could check with Cloudwater if there have been any cancellations. Or compensate for missing out by buying Garret’s Oxford Companion To Beer, which remains an essential reference book for beer lovers, though six years on maybe it needs a new edition to mirror the worldwide expansion of beer culture. 

I’ll badger him about it on Thursday, but won’t bring up a rare gaffe that still makes me chuckle. In the picture page of London pubs you’ll find our own dear Marble Arch (there’s a pub in Leeds called the Hyde Park, maybe they could have included that too).

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Garret Oliver
Brooklyn's Garret Oliver will host a beer and food matching at Cloudwater Barrel Tap

Loose Morals – a sin not to drink it

Cloudwater Barrel Tap’s Sheffield Street neighbours at No 5, Track, are now running a brewery tap there regularly each Friday (6pm-11pm) and Saturday (11.30am-10pm or beyond) with eight beer lines and occasional surprises – the latest a collab with Newcastle’s Wylam. I like the sound of ‘Loose Morals’, a full boded tropical Rye IPA packed with Citra and Idaho Seven hops.

171113 Neil Sowerby Beer Track Pour
Track are now running a brewery tap Track

Beer with soul

Track and Cloudwater are now significant players on the craft beer scene, but you have to start out somewhere. Step forward Soul Brewery Co, an ambitious home brew set-up run by chemical engineer Bill Neagle in Heaton Moor. He’s testing the waters at a one-off pop-up at Pokusevski + Catena (13 Shaw Road, Heaton Moor Sk4 4AG) from 7pm on Wednesday, November 29. Tickets for Soul of Beer of Heaton Moor: Beer and Tapas Evening, offering ten beer styles ranging from IPAs to Porters, Bavarian Weisse to Belgian Wits accompanied by ample tapas cost £35. Places are limited; to book ring 0161 442 1717 or email And if you go for the event do pop in for a swift palate cleanser en route at two of the best microbars around – Heaton Hops across the A6 from Heaton Chapel Station and, so convenient, Bottle Shop at 9 Shaw Road.

Heaton Hops 673Fg
While there, why not drop into Heaton Hops?

Cask & Kiln – whisky with a twist of IPA

Cane and Grain, Grape to Grain, Cask… and now Cask & Kiln, it’s so easy to get your bars in a twist. Still I’m glad I made it down to the latter, a Chorlton newcomer specialising in craft beer and bespoke whiskies from across the globe. The brainchild of Aaron Wood and Jack Foster-Currie, this deceptively large bar is in the former Coopers site at 478 Wilbraham Road (a couple of doors down from Out of The Blue). The beer range is still evolving with eight draught lines and a chiller cabinet full of goodies. 

But what took my fancy there was a tipple oddly reversing the current trend to barrel age beers in old whisky casks. In the Glenfiddich Experimental Series this definitive Speyside Scotch is finished in barrels seasoned with India Pale Ale. 

For the experiment the Speyside Craft Brewery created a special beer which was aged in ex-Glenfiddich casks for a month before they were returned to the distillery and filled with whisky for a three month finish. The 43% result is a delicious, fruity dram for £4.50 a shot. Can you sniff a whiff of hop? Alas, the answer’s not an Aye.

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Jack and Aaron of Cask & Kiln

Hop to it! Lees launch new beers in sharp brand shake-up

Sixth generation family brewer JW Lees have announced the biggest shake up of their beer range in 190 years. The Middleton firm will launch a completely rebranded core range on November 20 and follow up with three new beers. 

Expect 'Manchester Craft Lager' on November 20 – 4.7%, continental in style, made with Saaz and Celeia hops – 'Stout' in January and 'Gold' in March, while John Willie’s premium bitter will become 'Founder’s'. Recipes for this and other cask stawlarts JW Lees Bitter, Manchester Pale Ale and Moonraker won’t change. 

Re-branded bottled 500ml MPA, Manchester Star and Moonraker and 275ml 2017 Vintage Harvest Ale will also be available from December.

Jw Lees To Strengthen Range With Three New Beers Wrbm Large
JW Lees will launch a completely rebranded core range

Plans for 2018 also include; the building of a microbrewery at their brewery site in Middleton, a new series of collaborations with Manchester brewers and a range of five seasonal ales celebrating North West pioneers – Phantom, Arkwright, Bullseye, Boatmen and Railroad.

MD William Lees-Jones told us: “We’re putting brewing at the heart of the business. We’ll continue to buck the trend that sees declining cask sales by doubling our efforts. The new branding will undoubtedly generate excitement from our customers but for longer lasting growth we need to keep invigorating the range. From small batch collaborations to a new craft lager, the emphasis is on giving customers what they want and inspiring them with beers that they wouldn’t necessarily expect from a traditional family brewer.”